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Not long ago, I posted my interview with Disciples theologian and author Rita Nakashima Brock, founder of Faith Voices for the Common Good and a member of the Axis of Friendship — a coalition of individuals and groups reaching out in solidarity with the people of Iran.
With the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the U.N. this week and the ongoing concerns about its nuclear aims, the spotlight is once again on Iran, as it has been off and on since the highly-contested elections of this summer.
In another article, published the same day on the Dog Canyon blog, Brock asks “What has Christianity to do with Iran?” and answers “A lot, it turns out.” Her article there, “Iran and our Axis of Friendship,” is a fascinating look at the role of Persia (now Iran) in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth.
What are your thoughts on Iran, and on Ahmadinejad’s visit and speech?
On September 12, 2001, thousands of people around the world lit candles in solidarity with the United States following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Recently, the 2009 General Assembly adopted a resolution supporting the Axis of Friendship initiative encouraging Disciples to light a candle on September 12, and to hold services of candle-lighting and peacemaking in local churches. Disciples of Christ theologian, scholar and activist Rita Nakashima Brock, of Faith Voices for the Common Good, was a catalyst behind launching the Axis of Friendship in 2008. Brock is in London, but had an email conversation with Rebecca Bowman Woods, DisciplesWorld news and website editor, this week.
Rebecca Bowman Woods: How did the Axis of Friendship begin?
Rita Nakashima Brock: Last July, Rev. Pat DeJong [senior minister] at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, Calif. (FCCB) and I met to discuss what we could do about the demonization of Iran, and HR 362 making its way through the House, which included a naval blockade against Iran, an act of war under international law. It was clear the US military was in trouble in Iraq, so starting a war with a country 3 times its size whose legally elected government the US overthrew in 1953 was of great concern to us.
We decided to meet with others in the East Bay we had worked with previously in trying to stop the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. At that meeting, I suggested that another war protest would not be news and we needed to include some Iranian Americans to create a strategy they could support. We invited leaders of the Iranian Student Association at Cal Berkeley, an organizer for Iranian voters in the South Bay, and a friend of mine, Amir Soltani, with whom I’d shared a Harvard connection and with whom begun to work on poverty in Oakland.
The Iranian Americans said no one from their communities would show up for a political protest (because of danger to their families and themselves, and disillusionment with such protests), but they love festivals. We decided to hold a US-Iran friendship festival in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza with food, music, art, and speakers, ending with taking children’s peace art to Nancy Pelosi’s office near the Plaza. We had the speakers first (nine leaders from various faiths and communities, plus a middle school group, which read peace poetry) and called a press conference (excerpts from the event are at http://www.axisoffriendship.org).
Faith Voices for the Common Good [which Brock founded] is the fiscal home for the Axis of Friendship, but a number of churches and organizations are part of the network that supports the work of it that joined together last summer.
RW: How did you settle on September 12 as the date?
RB: The first feasible date for the event last year, given all the political conventions that summer, was September 12, a Friday afternoon. Amir, who had worked as a journalist, pointed out that on that day in 2001, 10,000 people had stood with candles in the streets of Tehran in solidarity and sorrow with the tragedy of 9/11. So, our choice of date seemed ideal to point to the global friendship that emerged that day all over the world. After discussing what to call it, we settled on the Axis of Friendship. A Festival of Friendship seemed to vague and general and needed explaining. Whereas Axis of Friendship directly linked the festival to the aftermath of 9/11 and the invention of an “axis of evil” in January of 2002, which was used to launch “preemptive” wars of aggression.
We decided to hold a candle lighting vigil as the conclusion of our festival and invited other communities to do so. Both Chapman University’s church relations office and the community at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, Calif., decided to hold vigils, and our festival in San Francisco was very successful.
RW: Who was involved in writing and submitting resolutions to the Disciples’ General Assembly and the UCC’s General Synod in support of Axis of Friendship Day?
RB: In its aftermath, Pat, Amir, and I thought we needed to do further work on education about the people and country of Iran (Pat had visited Iran with the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Iran program). Amir and I had written an op ed, published Sept 11 in the Boston Globe, about the Axis of Friendship, and Pat and I used it as a basis for creating a resolution to go to the United Church of Christ General Synod. She invited other churches to get involved.
I approached the Oakland congregation to see if we might do something similar with the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They jumped on board with enthusiasm, so I invited DJAN [Disciples Justice Action Network] to provide some support. I also knew that Park Avenue Christian Church [in New York City] had a strong peace program, and they too supported the initiative and joined as another church sponsor of the resolution.
Amir, in the meantime, both became a member of our Faith Voices board and was recruited to become the operations director for Omid for Iran. We continue to work on ways to further the work of the Axis of Friendship.
We are pleased that both the UCC and Disciples passed resolutions in support of Axis of Friendship Day and will continue with ways to promote it in the future, including adding more organizational members. While we are currently focused on Iran, the Axis is not limited to friendship with Iran.
RW: Things have changed in Iran, and here in the US, since last year. Do you feel more hopeful that we can foster diplomatic relations with Iran, and avoid the alternative of conflict or war? And with Iran’s recent elections and the accusations over the outcome, what role can friendships and an Axis of Friendship play in making the voices of the people of Iran heard and in learning what’s happening there?
RB: One of our objectives last summer was to put a human face on Iran and to de-demonize its people (who were demonized during the hostage crisis under Carter). The aftermath of the June election fraud in Iran this summer did this. I think many Americans could identify with their struggle, after our own difficult elections. But the courage of the Iranian people who continue to work for democracy has its own amazing and inspiring power.
We hope via the Axis of Friendship to keep Iran in the U.S. public consciousness and to create new ways to develop people-to-people exchanges to other countries where people struggle for human rights and dignity, especially as opportunities develop via Global Ministries’ work in many such places.
RW: What else is important for people to know?
RB: I think there are many ways for Christians to promote peace. The work of overseas ministries is an underappreciated and underutilized avenue for positive work for peace. At the same time, we have an increasingly diverse society and amazing opportunities to strengthen the Axis of Friendship with people in our own regions. We need to be reaching out to Iraqis, Afghanis, and Iranians who are our neighbors, and befriending them.
I first came to appreciate Iran in college because of work I did in Biblical studies and the impact of Persia on Isaiah and on Christianity. Then over a decade ago I met an Iranian Muslim feminist in London, Roxanne Zand, who introduced me to feminist writings she translated and to modern Iranian artists she was supporting as an art curator. And, of course, I have learned a great deal from Amir and the Iranian Americans I have come to know in the East Bay.
If you’re ever reporting on gay marriage, Steve Kindle is someone you’d want to interview. Kindle (a Disciples of Christ minister, and a straight man) is a vocal advocate for gay marriage and other lgbt issues. DisciplesWorld wrote about him when he appeared in Daniel Karslake’s 2007 Sundance film on Christianity and homosexuality, “For the Bible Tells Me So”, and we interviewed him again after California voters passed Proposition 8 last November.
Like most people who have an opinion on the subject, Kindle took note when Carrie Prejean, Miss California, voiced her opposition to gay marriage. But what really got him going wasn’t the subsequent revelation that she had posed for revealing photos. It was her association with the National Organization for Marriage (the same folks who brought you the thunder-and-lightning ad campaign called “The Gathering Storm”)
Kindle methodically takes on the NOM’s Q&A format — their “talking points” approach to getting people riled up about the supposed threat of gay marriage. He describes the NOM’s effort this way: “I have never discovered a more ill-informed, logic challenged, subject changing, straw man creating attempt at defending a position since the efforts of the holocaust deniers.” And then he sets out to take them apart.
Each day for about the past week, Kindle has taken on one point from the NOM and systematically debunked it. You have to admire the sheer bulldog-like quality of his approach. The guy knows what he’s talking about, and he’s not going to let go.
Donald E. Mitchell, was one of the founders of DisciplesWorld, serving for almost a year without pay, selling advertising to help birth the magazine. Don died April 28 after a long bout with lung cancer. He was 81.
For more than 30 years, Don was known across the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for his work as public relations director at Church Extension. He won numerous awards, particularly in photography, from church professional groups. He previously had been a newspaper and TV photographer in West Virginia.
Don, thank you. You will be missed.
Another interesting article on Disciples’ General Minister and President Sharon Watkins’ sermon during the inaugural prayer service on January 21, from the Yale Daily News. Watkins graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1984.
Here’s an excerpt from the article titled “Watkins breaks glass ceiling with sermon,” by Derek Tam:
Longtime friends and former colleagues of Watkins said her sermon accurately reflected her open-mindedness and ability to include people from all walks of life.
“Of course I was a little bit biased, but as a critic of sermons she did an especially outstanding job,” said Dennis Smith, a professor at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., where Watkins received her Doctor of Ministry degree.
Toward the end of the article, Tam includes an interesting observation from Serene Jones, who taught at Yale Divinity School until recently, when she became president of Union Theology Seminary in New York.
Yale Divinity School also included a link to this blog on its home page (link title: Inaugural blog by Verity Jones ’95 M.Div).
From Verity Jones, DisciplesWorld editor and publisher, who was at the inaugural prayer service yesterday:
I sat in the south transept balcony with other members of the press for Wednesday’s Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service at which the Disciples General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins preached. I had a grand view. I’ve already written extensively about Watkins’ sermon. You can read all about her profound and important message for the President and the nation’s leaders in my special report on www.disciplesworld.com. You can read the sermon itself online.
What doesn’t get said in the news story is how fabulous Waktins looked, how confidently she carried herself, how proud she made this Disciple feel about being a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) today. Her message was delivered pitch-perfect, a brilliant balance between her down-home Midwestern way of communicating and her gift for articulating a strong prophetic message for the people. Watkins took the crowd immediately with that off the cuff remark about how nice the sermon’s salutation, “Mr. President,” sounded. Unafraid of the positive and warm response, she continued, “Let’s try this one on, Madame First Lady.” The delighted congregation applauded. Those of you who tuned in know what I’m talking about.
Interesting moments that may not have been on camera: The Clintons entered through the north transept of the Cathedral about 20 minutes before the service started. All of the religious dignitaries were seated in the north transept, and the Clintons worked that crowd, like they always do, even shaking the hand of Rick Lowery, Sharon Watkins’ husband, before finding their seats. I had a nice view of that interchange, by the way. Very touching.
Another: In worship services, apparently, the president and the vice president are not announced and no “hail to the chief” is played. So… the Bidens, then the Obamas just kind of wandered in through the north transept just before the service began. They were purposeful, no crowd working for these guys until after the service. But still, it was almost like they were just arriving for church. I liked that.
And another: Michelle Obama is very impressive. She did not hesitate to initiate the hand clapping during the congregational singing of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” The other five on her row – her husband, the Bidens, and the Clintons sang, but no hand-clapping. Hands properly folded in lap for those guys. And when she noticed they weren’t clapping, she didn’t stop. She is her own person and I think she will teach us all, women and men, children and adults, people of all colors, races, and backgrounds, a thing or two about the power of confidence.
Oh, and I wonder what her flat black shoes sparked in the fashion media. I tell you, if I danced at 10 balls in high heels all night like she did Tuesday, I’d be wearing house slippers the next day. Flat shoes were just right.
I suppose because this was church (even if worship with the president in a cavernous cathedral is not much like the kind of worship I usually engage), but I suppose that because this was church, I was even more moved today by these historic happenings than I was yesterday at the swearing-in ceremony. That a word from the church was heard today by this man and this administration at this memorable and remarkable moment, somehow filled me with peace for the day, and hope for the future. It was extraordinary, really.
Or it could’ve been that on Tuesday I was just much too cold to produce any tears of emotion! But today, they flowed like a mighty river and ever flowing stream (a phrase we’ve heard so much this week, too much I wonder?).
A technical note: I am no photographer and I know it, though I do try for the sake of DisciplesWorld. My camera was not working today. We had already made a plan that DisciplesWorld would use Associated Press photos of the service for our news report because I didn’t think I would have a good enough seat to see. But then I did, and I didn’t get photos of this amazing event. I’m bummed, really disappointed. Anyway … AP photos and those taken by Wanda Bryant Wills of the Disciples’ Communication Ministries AFTER the service ended will be added to our story and Facebook page when they are available.
DisciplesWorld’s editor and publisher, Verity Jones, was at the National Cathedral prayer service in Washington, D.C. Disciples’ General Minister and President Sharon Watkins delivered a powerful sermon during the service. Afterwards, Verity talked with a Muslim scholar in the audience. He praised Watkins’ sermon, for her mention of “A Common Word Between You and Us” and for “speaking truth to power.”
Read Verity’s article on the service here.
If you missed Disciples’ General Minister and President Sharon Watkins’ sermon at the inaugural service at the National Cathedral, here’s where you can download the text version. I haven’t checked for video clips yet – if you come across any, let me know.
Also, if you’re looking for the scripture text read by Cynthia Hale, you can download the full program (including all the prayers, hymns, and scripture texts) from the National Cathedral’s website.
UPDATE #2: Videos (in 2 parts on YouTube) – Part 1 and Part 2. The first cuts off a bit of the beginning but starts with the Cherokee story of the 2 wolves. (Thanks, Eduardo, for letting us know about this)